(JTA) — The year I unwittingly decided to become Christian started innocently enough.
“There’s a sleepover at First Methodist on Friday and everyone is going,” I said to my parents. I was in the sixth grade, one of three Jews in class at our Texas public school. We lived in an area where there was at least one church on every block. It took us 45 minutes to get across town to temple, where we attended Hebrew school once a week.
“So, can I go? Please?! I’ll die if I don’t go!” I begged, neglecting to mention that missing a social event where Chad Williams was holding court was the real reason.
In this very non-Jewish area of Texas, where we devoured jalapeno poppers and matzah ball soup with equal gusto, my mother always understood the social dynamics we were up against. Her general motto for her four daughters (I was the oldest) was, “I’d rather you girls be social than sit at home like wallflowers,” so her immediate response was, “Sure!”
“Well, I don’t know,” my dad drawled. Whenever we complained about the long trek to synagogue, my father was the one who reminded us, “There just aren’t that many of us Jews anymore.”
When I was young, I hadn’t noticed that everyone headed to St. Anne’s on Sunday while we ate gefilte fish and listened to dinner table stories about ruthless Cossacks. But now I’d come to realize that nearly every social event involved some sort of church sleepover or church youth group, and I wanted in.
“It’s at the church?” my dad asked me. “What do you do all night?”
I wasn’t sure what they did all night at a church, but I answered, “Play games and watch movies and eat pizza.”
After some thought, he relented. “Well, OK. Just be careful,” he said.
That sleepover at church was pretty much as I’d imagined: We really did eat pizza and sit around and ogle Chad Williams before they separated the girls and the boys and we rolled out our sleeping bags and drifted off to sleep. There was nothing religious about it – except the fact that we were sleeping in a church.
After a few more church sleepovers, it started to feel pretty normal. Of course, my sisters and I still made the drive on Wednesday nights to Hebrew school, but I was most excited to do the church-related things that were the heartbeat of our preteen social scene.
Eventually I started going to church with friends. It’s what everyone I knew did on Sundays. I didn’t catch much of the service since my friends usually found excuses for us to “go to the bathroom,” i.e., loiter in the halls chewing gum trying to seem cool.
Since I wasn’t coming home holding rosary beads or handing out The Watchtower pamphlets at the dinner table, my parents saw this as a harmless social diversion. And it was. Until Jesus entered the picture.
Everyone in school seemed to be whispering and laughing about this secret Christian youth group that had weekly meetings at people’s houses. It was starting to become the center of our school’s social life.
“What do you guys do at the meetings?” I asked my friend Lisa, who had hosted a few get-togethers with her sisters.
“We hang out and eat and pretty much just talk,” Lisa said. “It’s nondenominational, you should totally come!” Of course I wanted to go. It was the thing to do. I could also hang out with Chad. In the sixth grade, that’s about as glamorous as it gets.
The next week I went to the meeting with Lisa, and at first I felt right at home. We had cookies and orange juice and sat around talking about important sixth-grade topics: what clothes we loved and what classes we hated. There was some covert, subtle flirting, too, along the lines of:
Chad Williams: “You’re tan.”
Me: “You’re tan, too.”
Then it happened.
“OK, everyone! Let’s gather around and hold hands!” said Lisa’s older sister, who was running the meeting. We gathered around and held hands. Everyone bowed their head. They started singing a song about Jesus. Suddenly I imagined my dad’s head floating above our prayer circle, looking down at me and saying, “There just aren’t that many of us anymore.”
I bowed my head but kept my eyes wide open, as if by closing my eyes I would get sucked into a vortex of baptisms and confessional booths. My stomach cramped in guilt. As they passionately belted out the Doobie Brothers song “Jesus Is Just Alright,” I imagined my grandparents looking down at me, reminding me of the Cossacks. I could just see my grandfather, Big Papa, wearing the powder blue suit that he refused to throw away, saying, “My parents escaped Russia and fought for their lives so their great-granddaughter could sing about Jesus?”
Maybe hanging out at a church youth group wasn’t just about talking to Chad about his amazing tan.
When they finally finished singing, I exhaled. I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath for so long. Everyone around me was clapping and smiling, as if they’d just experienced the best concert of their lives. They ate more cookies, and settled around on chairs and on the floor like a cozy little tribe. I sat, too, but instead of looking elated, I looked a little stricken. No one seemed to notice. I watched these people I loved and understood that no matter how hard I tried I wouldn’t be the same as them – and I didn’t want to be. I was different. I clenched my smile and nodded along until I could finally leave and go home.
The next week at school, Lisa walked up to me in the hall after class. “Are you coming to the meeting tonight?” she asked. “It’s at Ashley’s house and her mom’s making s’mores, plus they have a pool.”
I loved s’mores, and I knew Chad would be doing perfect cannonballs off the diving board in his swimsuit. But I’d have to see him and the rest of my friends at the mall, at the movies, at McDonald’s, because I wasn’t going to go to any church activities again.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Have fun though.”
Deep down I knew my dad was right: There just aren’t that many of us anymore.
(Dina Gachman’s writing has been featured in Glamour, Forbes and the Los Angeles Times. She lives in Los Angeles and can be found on Twitter @TheElf26.)